Norfolk-based renewable heating expert Finn Geotherm is celebrating its 10th year in business. The ground and air source heat pump installer, which started as a part-time one-man band with early installations of 6kW units, has grown to a 20-strong team undertaking landmark 350kW projects for pan-European companies. With a decade of operations and almost 600 heat pump systems now under its belt, directors David Alston and Guy Ransom outlined Finn Geotherm’s early beginnings and future plans to REI.
The business was set up by technical director David Alston in 2006. A degree- qualified engineer, David was working in the food industry when approached by Finnish heat pump manufacturer Lämpöässä to undertake some UK market analysis. At the time, Lämpöässä had a number of European subsidiaries and wanted to assess the viability of heat pumps in the UK as a new market. Ten years ago, heat pumps were not widely known in the UK, although the technology was well used in Finland – Lämpöässä started trading in the early 1980s. Having completed his research, David, who is half Finnish himself, seized the opportunity and Finn Geotherm was born.
While David retained his food industry role, he began working on heat pumps on his off-shift days. The company operated out of a container unit on David’s father’s farm, with David spending every spare moment reading and researching heat pumps. Lämpöässä fully trained David in Finland, but the intricacies of UK electricity supply and operating conditions meant that he relied on his invaluable engineering knowledge to complete early installations.
“My background certainly gave me a head start but it was a real challenge to get up to speed on heat pump technology,” explains David. “It was essential to increase my knowledge base as we needed to know
the industry and technology inside out. Consumer awareness was so low at this point too – it was clear we could use the opportunity to really position ourselves as experts.”
Finn Geotherm was initially set up as an importer and distributor for Lämpöässä. However, David quickly realised the UK industry was not yet ready to deal with installing heat pumps. Although the technology was first established over 150 years ago and the first heat pump installed in 1945 (coincidentally, in Norwich, just half an hour down the road from Finn Geotherm), the UK market was still in very early stages. At this point, David decided to take the installation side of the business in-house. David says: “We needed people to install the equipment but the skills just weren’t there. To enable us to build a good name for Finn Geotherm, we had to have control over all aspects of every project.
By doing the installations ourselves and calling in electricians and other engineers as needed, we were able to complete a series of great projects.”
Changes in standards as the market began to develop created another hurdle for Finn Geotherm. “The formalisation of both MCS and RECC gave us not only a challenge but a great opportunity,” says David. “It was time consuming and costly but we embraced the regulations. They made such an impact on the industry – improving standards and consumer confidence, but at the same time, reducing competition in the market place.” The admin required by RECC and MCS is now just a part of the process for Finn Geotherm as it specialises only in these systems.
Similarly, customer hand-holding, while it remains a key part of Finn Geotherm’s focus on excellent customer service, has proved time consuming for the business.
The introduction of standards such as MCS has had a positive impact on this and will continue to do so as general confidence grows in the products and installers.
In 2009, David was joined by Guy Ransom – a corporate finance expert who, at the time, was working as a consultant for Johnson Controls as European Director of Financing. The pair met over a heat pump installation at Guy’s home. David asked Guy for advice on finding a new bank and within months, the pair became joint partners. Guy said: “I knew a bit about heat pumps and by talking to David while he installed mine, I found out more about this untapped market and the potential of Finn Geotherm, a fledgling company built on David’s solid engineering background. It was a financially challenging time and by securing a new bank with a solid business plan in place, we were able to give Finn Geotherm some breathing space and think strategically about its future.”
Working together, Guy and David had to decide whether they would retain their focus purely on heat pumps or diversify into the then burgeoning area of PV systems. They took the brave decision to buck the trend that so many others were following, and to remain experts in their chosen technology. As the years have passed, this decision has been shown to be wise, as many ‘Jacks of All Trades’ have fallen by the wayside, leaving Finn Geotherm as masters in the field of renewable heating.
The following six years saw the steady growth of Finn Geotherm with new staff and investment in new premises and vehicles. The pair recognised that employing heat pump engineers full- time made the business more robust. David trained them with support from Lämpöässä – a process that takes two years to achieve the required knowledge and skills to carry out installations to Finn Geotherm’s exacting standards.
In March 2011, the announcement of the domestic Lämpöässä ground source unit by DECC presented a great opportunity for companies such as Finn Geotherm, but also created additional challenges. “When the domestic RHI was first announced, it was good news for the industry as it offered a better subsidy than the previous Renewable Heat Premium Payment,” says Guy. “However, while customers waited for the final details to be confirmed and for the incentive to launch, they put their projects on hold. It was a frustrating time for us as we felt in limbo until the following Spring when it was introduced.”
Since 2009 Finn Geotherm’s installations have developed to encompass schools, churches, commercial offices, leisure centres and stately homes as well as every type of home imaginable. The company has also been privileged to receive many industry awards, including being listed as finalists in nine different awards this year. The key to Finn Geotherm’s success has remained the superb spirit of teamwork engendered within the company and the attitude accepted by all that every installation, large or small, should be completed to case study standards.
Now a 20-strong team of heat engineers, electrical engineers, salesmen and aftersales support, Finn Geotherm has installed almost 600 ground and air source units. The company has secured more than £10 million in RHI payments for its customers and is positive about the future. Finn Geotherm believes there are still great untapped opportunities to utilise heat pump technology to not only deliver heat but also cooling. “The heat pump is probably the single greatest innovation in plumbing and heating in the past 60 years,” explains David. “This technology is really only just getting started in terms of its adoption. Heat pumps are capable of so much and the range of applications where both heating and cooling can be achieved is vast.” An example of such a system at work is Finn Geotherm’s recent installation at RAGT.
“There has also been a sea change in the use of heat pumps by housing associations,” says Guy. “These organisations are now seeing the benefits of high-quality systems and installations. Going forward, there is a real opportunity to embrace this further with the introduction of district heating schemes. Although it is a relatively alien concept in the UK, it is commonplace in countries such as Finland whereby one heat pump provides heating for an entire development. ‘Shared’ heat is viewed in the same way as electricity and water. This is a more cost effective and easy to maintain system, particularly for landlords renting out a number of properties, and something we would love to help drive in the UK.”
The Spectator magazine published an article in 1948 stating
The quote still stands today and it’s a challenge that Finn Geotherm relishes for the next 10 years.
Finn Geotherm’s first heat pump installation was a 40kW Lämpöässä ground source unit in a single-storey barn conversion in Derbyshire. “The system hasn’t missed a beat in the past 10 years,” says David proudly. “We’ve installed one new exterior sensor since it was commissioned and that’s it.”
Installations in the past 10 years have covered everything from barn conversions and village churches to office buildings and even at the zoo.
Banham Zoo in Norfolk approached Finn Geotherm with a need to keep its new lorikeet house at a consistent sub-tropical temperature for lorikeets, reptiles and butterflies. Heating costs would be a drain on the zoo’s resources and it was difficult to install a fossil fuel system safely within the grounds. In line with its highest environmental credentials, the zoo also needed to maintain a low carbon footprint. A Dimplex LA60 air source heat pump was installed with 1000 litre Lämpöässä thermal store. Heat is distributed via a combination of under floor heating through pathways within the building and reptile houses and Jaga AVS air heaters.
The Dimplex air source system delivers the constant heat required at approximately 60 per cent of the cost of a fossil fuel system. The Jaga AVS units provide consistent temperature warm air, with underfloor heating assisting in overall temperature balance. The zoo is benefitting from no carbon emissions at the site and general lower emissions due to the system’s high energy efficiency. This installation won Finn Geotherm the prestigious title of Commercial Installation of the Year in the Energy Efficiency and Renewables Awards in 2009 and went on to secure additional heat pump projects at a dinosaur park run by the owner of Banham Zoo and at his own home.
Finn Geotherm has completed a landmark project for leading European agricultural plant breeder RAGT Seeds in Cambridgeshire. This involved the design and installation of a 350kW ground source heat pump system for its six glasshouses, which are used for developing new crops. The bespoke system completely replaces RAGT’s old LPG boiler with three Lämpöässä T120 ground source heat pumps working in tandem to keep the glasshouses at a constant temperature.
While specifying ground source for RAGT’s heat requirements, Finn Geotherm also identified an opportunity to utilise the new system to deliver air circulation and cooling to ensure a constant temperature all year round for crops to thrive in. This bespoke passive cooling system was designed and installed without impacting on RHI payments, and at the same time, revolutionised the way in which RAGT Seeds maintains the conditions within its glasshouses.
Finn Geotherm’s ground source installation has delivered outstanding energy and cost savings for RAGT Seeds, as well as dramatically reducing emissions and enabling a reduced use of chemical fungicides. Shortlisted for top industry awards, the project also provides a blueprint for hundreds of other applications, from similar horticultural schemes to sports halls.